A Parent’s Guide to College Student Mental Health

It’s crucial to be proactive around the mental health challenges faced by college-age young adults

March 7, 2024

Parents often need help addressing both the mental health and academic needs of their college-age child. When students have mental health challenges, parents often feel overwhelmed and unsure about where to start to help make things better.

Awareness and treatment are essential to preventing crises that result in failing classes, dropping out, or severe emotional issues. Among the most common problems seen with college students are anxiety disorders, depression, substance use, psychotic episodes, and relationship troubles. That doesn’t include many other mental health concerns.

Below are some tips for supporting students as they navigate the unfamiliar waters of university life.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • Tips for supporting the mental health of college students
  • How to recognize if a student may be struggling
  • What to do if a student is struggling with their mental health

Prepare Your Child for the Unexpected

It is very likely that your child, or one of your child’s roommates or friends, will encounter a mental health issue while in college. Parents need to talk with their children about mental health and let them know that if they find themselves struggling, they are not alone.

A National Alliance on Mental Illness survey of college students found that 27% of all respondents lived with depression, 24% with bipolar disorder, and 11% with anxiety.

Keeping lines of communication open is very important. This will help students to feel comfortable that they can come to you with any problems they may experience without fear of being judged.

The Importance of Staying in Touch and Validation

It’s crucial that parents make time for regular phone conversations with their college-age children. Don’t limit your communication to emails and texts. It’s easier to detect when something is bothering your child by listening to their voice or seeing them virtually than it is to interpret their mood via a text message.

It’s also incredibly important to have regular check-ins with family members and friends to discuss any changes in your child’s behavior.

Young woman does schoolwork on laptop

It’s important for parents to be able to support their child’s mental wellness and recognize the signs that they might be struggling

College can be difficult and isolating at times. Parents should motivate their children to seek out interpersonal relationships. It’s important for students’ well-being to maintain social connections and to have others to spend time with and rely on.

If students are attending college virtually, it’s important to remember that remote learning isn’t a way to get out of classes or classwork. Validate your child’s experience—learning in this fashion, as well as not having the in-person community of fellow students, can be very challenging for some students.

Encourage Healthy Habits

The importance of a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise cannot be overstated, particularly as they relate to overall mental health. It’s easy to let good eating, sleep, and exercise habits fall by the wayside while living away from home for the first time or when coping with a very stressful situation.

Avoid lecturing your student about eating their vegetables. Instead, ask them how they feel when they eat well or wake up at the same time each morning. This will help them to connect self-care with emotional stability.

Make Room for Mistakes

Perfection is not a realistic goal. It’s important to let your child know that you support them, no matter what.

Mistakes are an unavoidable part of life, and we can learn from them. A perfect GPA isn’t worth it if it comes at the expense of your child’s emotional well-being.

Have a Plan Focused on Student Mental Health

All students, particularly those who have already experienced mental health issues, should have a plan in place in case things get too difficult to handle.

Make an appointment with the campus mental health center to determine what services are available through the university. Students can pre-register for disability support services to access helpful accommodations.

If your child is already under the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist, ensure that they are able to continue that care while away at school. If in-person supports are not readily available, many clinicians can provide assistance over the phone and through telehealth platforms.

Having a solid plan in place will make it easier for your child to obtain mental health services should they become necessary.

Growing Up Is Harder Than You Think

A group of teens laughing together

The struggles of being a student can be overwhelming for some teens and young adults, and in some cases, these feelings can lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

A group of teens laughing together

Structure Is Essential When Learning Virtually

Support students in maintaining structure if they are attending college classes online. It’s essential that students maintain a schedule for getting up and getting dressed, do schoolwork in a separate designated area (if possible), and maintain boundaries between their downtime and their work time.

If students are taking virtual classes, they may not have the same amount of structure as learning in person because everything is happening on their computer screen. Time management can become more difficult when students no longer have a cohort of peers working alongside them.

It is also helpful for students to find time to get outside and step away from the screen by taking walk breaks or doing something creative. Socially, it’s important that virtual students maintain contact with friends, spend time together, and study together.

Even if students have a strong support system at home, it’s a loss to not be learning and socializing alongside friends.

The Perks of Unplugging

Managing news and social media overload requires a delicate balance. It’s important to stay informed and connected, but it’s also essential to know when to take a breather. Students should be aware of their screen time and the content they are consuming. It can be helpful for everyone to step back and practice extra self-care when needed.

When a break is needed, it’s a good idea to watch a movie, read, or spend time with friends. Parents can set an example by practicing self-care and encouraging their children to do the same. Such practices will build resilience against the stress of digital burnout.

Signs That a Student May Be Struggling

It’s important to keep an eye out for symptoms of depression, the most common mental health challenge. These include:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Tearfulness

A sudden drop in academic performance can be another sign that support is needed.

Attending college, whether in person or online, can create various obstacles, spanning from adapting to an entirely new lifestyle to facing increased academic pressures.

It’s important to acknowledge that for some students, attending college virtually poses unique challenges compared to those who attend college in person. Not having access to in-person community, mentors, and social supports, as well as balancing potential stressors in one’s home life, can impact a student’s well-being beyond academics.

McLean’s College Mental Health Program

Clinician speaks with teens outside

If your child needs help managing their mental health, McLean’s College Mental Health Program can help. Learn more about our services and treatment options.

Clinician speaks with teens outside

Learn About College Mental Health Services

It’s never too early to call the university’s student counseling center to ask about the range of services they provide. Make an appointment to talk with the counseling center director or another professional staff member.

College mental health services may be limited, so it’s important to see what may be available off-campus at a local counseling center or hospital. Many centers keep a list of convenient off-campus providers who work well with students.

If needed, contact your child’s college to determine their process for requesting accommodations.

There are a variety of accommodations that a college can make for a student. These include:

  • Preferred seating
  • Additional breaks
  • Separate exam rooms
  • Written exams instead of oral presentations
  • Use of a digital recorder
  • Deadline extensions
  • Completing work at home/dorm room

Ideally, schools will provide appropriate resources and policies to students who may need a leave of absence or accommodations.

We encourage schools to prioritize resources for vulnerable student populations by understanding the potential need for extensions, reduced course loads, modified policies, housing accommodations, and culturally responsive therapeutic services.

If a Student Is Struggling, Get Help Immediately

If your child is showing signs of a possible mental health issue, prioritize getting help over the fear of tarnishing their transcript or reputation.

Academic struggles can be wrongly attributed to a student “not trying” or “not working hard enough,” rather than being recognized as a potential symptom or sign of mental health concerns.

Thankfully, there seems to be an increasing acceptance of prioritizing well-being, especially for college-age students.

Many students need support in the form of therapy in which they will learn the skills needed to manage the symptoms related to a condition such as depression or anxiety.

For some students, a leave from school is needed to recover and get back on track. Each college has a policy about granting medical leave. Contact the student health center or the dean of students office to find out the procedure for taking a temporary leave of absence.

Purchasing tuition insurance is another factor to consider. It can ease financial stress in the event of a crisis and leave of absence.

Want More Information?

Looking for even more information about mental health? You may find these resources helpful.

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